Transit and a Shrinking U.S. Government

Posted by Content Coordinator on Friday, August 5th, 2011


Written by: Larry Ehl

The recent “deal” intended to cut the US Federal deficit looks like it can only lead to further cuts in Federal spending on almost everything.

Cities, in general, require higher levels of infrastructure, and a range of other spending, than the country as a whole.  So the further Federal budget cutting to come is likely to mean further damage to essential services in cities, including public transit.  While a powerful cadre of urban economists and thinkers are ready to make the case that the city is essential to the economy of the nation, and the battle for continued Federal funding may well be won, cities and local governments, including transit agencies, should clearly be strategizing for the possibility of permanent decline in Federal investment.

It’s important to separate, in all of our minds, two questions about urban services such as transit that often get confused:

  • Should urban services be subsidized by taxpayers to purchase their benefits to the whole community and economy?
  • At what level of government should this be done?

I have strong feelings about the first question but am quite agnostic about the second.  It’s unavoidable, though, that if the Federal level of government decides to care less about cities, other levels of government will have to care more, and spend more.

The prospect of shifting responsibility from one level of government to another is understandably horrifying to anyone close to the task.  Voters must be convinced of the need to adapt to new realities with new funding.  Processes that have been working have to be changed.  Long-settled debates must be unsettled.  Most challenging is that the prospect casts doubt on the job security of the very people who have to make it work, though in general the job-security impact would be that Federal jobs would disappear and state-region-city jobs would have to grow.

But you always have to separate thinking about the transition from thinking about the end state.

Would it be a bad thing for each state, each city, and each urban region, to have its own debate about its own funding sources for transit, as it would for similar urban services that may see federal cuts?  The outcomes would vary from city to city and state to state.  Would that be bad?

Even within urban regions, is it a bad thing for different cities to want different levels of service, and to come forward with their own funding sources if they want more than higher levels of government, including their own regional transit agency, can offer?

What would a US be like in which each city’s transit network reflected its own resources and intentions, based on its own hard-won local consensus, in the face of declining Federal funding and therefore declining Federal influence?

California and Texas would become even more different than they are now, as they charted this landscape guided by their very different values.  Urban outcomes in general would grow more diverse, as the choice became more stark between low-tax, low-infrastructure, low-service cities and others with higher taxes but a stronger foundation of infrastructure and essential services.  So we’d see, even more clearly, the result of that competition.

In other words, US urban policy would become more like that of Canada, a country where the Federal role in most urban matters is much smaller than in the US, but where cities, regional governments, and provinces are correspondingly freer to chart their own way, and pay for it.

It’s easy to imagine that more conservative states would just let their cities die through underfunding, but that’s certainly not happening in Alberta.  Canada’s most conservative province, a natural resource powerhouse that draws comparison to Texas in its boom times, has remarkably good inner-city transit policy and a continuous stream of provincial investment.  Calgary’s downtown commuter parking cost is about the same as San Francisco’s and the result is extremely strong ridership on its bus and light rail system, at least for commutes, and support for a dense core.

The transition to a more Canada-like Federal role would be hell.  Everyone involved is understandably horrified by the prospect, including me much of the time.  But if the Federal budget-slashers win, US cities and states will be on that course whether they like it or not.  Are we sure the eventual outcome would be a disaster?

Just thinking out loud here.  Discuss.

About Human Transit
“I’m Jarrett Walker, and this is my professional blog.   Since 1991 I’ve been a consulting transit planner, helping to design transit networks and policies for a huge range of communities.  My goal here is to start conversations about how transit works, and how we can use it to create better cities and towns.”

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